Would legalising sex work help fight Aids?
Giving sex workers condoms and advice will not bring down HIV rates, says Elena Reynaga, general secretary of the Latin American and Caribbean Sex Workers Network. But giving them their rights will.
It is of little use giving condoms and HIV prevention advice to women who are harrassed by the police and abused and cheated by their clients because of their illegitimacy, she says. If you want sex workers to negotiate with their clients, you have to give them status. They have to have some rights.
She does not see why this, the oldest profession, should not be treated like any other. Everybody has to work for a living, she says. Some women, brought up in poverty, have nothing else to offer.
But the network, which now has 17 member organisations across Latin America, has begun to challenge attitudes. “We now say what we think – not what society wants to hear from us. We are trying to get out of the role of the victim to say ‘this body is mine – why do I have to ask the permission of society to do what I want to do with it? It is the only thing that is mine. If I want to make money from that, it is my right’.
“We have rights as women and we need to fight for that – to have the same benefits that all workers have to get out of the darkness.”
Society is two-faced, she says. There is demand for commercial sex, but discrimination against those who provide it. Her argument is that sex workers should be treated like any other kind. And yes – they need pensions. “We want to contribute to the national security for when we are old,” she says.
Reynaga has the backing of the International HIV/Aids Alliance for her demand that Global Fund money should be channelled through sex workers’ organisations, and not NGOs that think they know what is best for them.
“Remember all the millions of dollars that the Global Fund has spent in our region. Very little has reached us,” she says. In only three countries – Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay – have any grants gone to sex workers organisations. Out of $170 million spent in Latin America, according to an report by the Alliance, only 4.6% went directly to be managed by key populations. Yet where it has, she says, there have been significant achievements. In Ecuador, they advocated for the end of a compulsory card that each sex worker had to keep with her, listing the sexually transmitted infections she had suffered. Each woman had to pay a doctor $26 a week for a check-up. “The doctors always invented STIs to sell medicines to them,” says Reynaga, “and they were also victims of the doctors.” But now, she says, sex workers are now far more readily seeking healthcare when they need it.
And they need and want education, she says. Reynaga, brought up in dire poverty in Argentina, went to school so that she could run the network and speak on equal terms with politicians and officials. She was 47 at the time. Learning to read and write has transformed her life. Education opens horizons and for many – although not all – it shows a path out of sex work altogether.